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Ute Lemper - Angels over Berlin and the World: Vana Gierig (piano), Hector Castro (bandoneĆ³n) Don Falzone (double bass), Todd Turkisher (drums). Barbican Hall, London 3.7.2009 (JPr)

Ute Lemper is the tallest of tall Brünnhildes amongst modern day musical and cabaret stars. Because of these striking, typically blonde, Teutonic looks she is most often compared to her twentieth-century predecessor, Marlene Dietrich; but there is a problem here: I have seen Dietrich’s costumes in Berlin and it is clear that Fraulein Lemper’s legs are probably longer than that great star was tall!

This event is part of the Barbican Blaze summer festival and brought me this opportunity to see a singer I knew by reputation and recordings yet had never seen live until now. Once again for a number of reasons - that I will be hinting at below - expectation sometimes is better than the actual experience.

The concept was intriguing and Ute Lemper announced that we were to be taken on a multilingual musical journey that would start in Berlin with songs ‘… written in the years of the Weimar Republic: ‘The Songs of Weill/Brecht, the Kabarett songs and a song cycle in Yiddish. The journey continues through passages of my life, my years in Paris, my love for the French poetry and chanson. I am searching in the back-streets of the cities where ancient ghosts with new faces write songs and stories between yesterday and tomorrow it is a voyage through my own life with my own tales captured inside these stories and their music’.

This seems very worthy and has the potential for an intriguing evening but sadly what Ute Lemper gave us was an extended version of her own cabaret show from her residences at the Café Carlyle in New York where she now lives, unsubtly tweaked for her London audience. So in a very long 2 hour 20 minute show we had the obligatory ‘Hallo London’ moment and how great it was to be back here and her memories of appearing in the West End; how she remembers falling asleep on the ‘Subway’(!) after being on stage in Chicago, and how the cab driver from the airport told her the Andy Murray story. Then we had the usual interplay with a couple of members of the audience in the front row. To one balding man she said rather suggestively, over-emphasising the Germanic rolled ‘r’ – ‘I’m a good German Hausfrrrrau and will polish anything you want me to polish’. Finally we also had some typical audience participation with some ‘community whistling’ for ‘Mack the Knife’. Even the black draped stage, ultramarine lighting and wisps of dry ice were pure cabaret kitsch.

Then there was her smirking, manic, stage persona as she appeared like someone who has had too much caffeine and it is slow to wear off. It was all rather too late – for my liking – when she finally stopped and stood still to let a song sell itself. Also, there were the stream of consciousness fantasies such as a long rambling story tracing the imaginary history of a red feather boa that involved Dietrich, Piaf, through to Carla Bruni, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, amongst others, and included much ‘fun’ about Margaret Thatcher feeding chocolate cake to Helmut Kohl. Some of the audience lapped this up though I believe others, like me, believed there was a danger that the story of an old German boa was turning Ute Lemper into a not-that-old German bore!

It has to be admitted that Ute Lemper still has an incredible voice of tremendous range with the requisite sultry, smoky, tones. However too few songs from the opening ‘Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt’ by Friedrich Hollaender (better known as ‘Falling in Love Again’ in the English version) to a medley near the end that wasted three iconic songs - Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht’s famous ‘Die Moritat von Mackie Messer’ (‘Mack the Knife), ‘Life is a Cabaret’ and ‘All that Jazz’ - were free of vocal histrionics, jazz scat singing and trying to remind her adoring fans, of which there were many present, how she is capable of reaching high notes only dogs can comfortably hear.

Yet when she stood still and let a song inhabit her – and not the other way round – how marvellous these rare moments were in the over-inflated evening. I can forgive almost all the rest for these too few moments that will stay with me forever. These included her haunting account of the Léo Ferré song ‘La memoire de la Mer’ and her impassioned singing of Jacques Brel’s ‘Dans le port d’Amsterdam’ about a sailor and his dreams and it was only then when she finally reduced the barn-like Barbican Hall to the intimacy of a cabaret room.

I believed Ute Lemper when she said that though she has lived in New York for 11 years she still gets drawn back to her German roots by her experiences in Berlin. She marvels at seeing it transformed from the city she first grew to know in the 1980s to what it is now. As she told us it has gone ‘from minefields to palaces of glass’. However her ‘show’ told us less about that great city and its influence and did more to reveal how a musical ‘rootlessness’ has affected her ability to connect with the emotions of what she is singing.

She was supported by what she described as her ‘New York band’, an international quartet based around Don Falzone’s sturdy double bass playing and Todd Turkisher’s often rampant drumming. Hector Castro played the bandoneón a fascinating instrument that is a type of accordion. It has an interesting history as Ute Lemper told us in one of her many stories; it was invented in the eighteenth century in Germany to play church music and then ‘joined the immigrants to Buenos Aires’ although it could not be played fast enough for the local music but what came from it was the Tango. It gave some powerful emotional undercurrents to many of the songs and featured prominently in the first encore of Edith Piaf’s ‘Milord’. Providing some musical direction (if he was allowed to I guess?) was Vana Gierig at the piano and he came into his own when the stage cleared and he was alone with Fraulein Lemper for the final song when his poignant accompaniment underscored her evocative – and at last delicately nuanced – singing of the Brecht/Weill Nanna’s Lied. Her repeated appeals (in German) for ‘Where are the tears from last night, Where is the snow from yesteryear’ finally almost brought a tear to my eye. True communication at last – but why did it take so long!

Jim Pritchard

is a summer celebration of music and dance at the Barbican and other venues until 3 August 2009 – visit the website


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